Camp Hornaday!

Ron Hornaday

(WOMR file photo)

The last vestige of it rests in Lindy Hornaday’s office, across the street from the house where it became a peculiar NASCAR artifact. It was 17 years in the making.

The solitary remaining component of a hard-used and well-worn sectional couch from Ron and Lindy Hornaday’s former Lake Norman home is the River Styx and “George Washington Slept Here” all at once. But more importantly it symbolizes the opportunity and the friendship the Hornadays afforded not only to young race car drivers named Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick in 1997, but the scores of other wayfaring dreamers the former Truck series champion and his wife have made in the place the racing community fondly refers to as Camp Hornaday.

That Johnson, a six-time Sprint Cup champion, and Harvick, newly minted with his first title at NASCAR’s highest level in November, at one point lounged, slept or passed out on that couch has made it a a magical symbol in black leather for the latest generation of drivers and mechanics with NASCAR ambitions that followed them in the Hornadays’ home. Its newest layer of historic patina, color or incrustation, has made it a source of amusement for its owners. And perhaps one day, that couch will become a resident of the Hall of Fame in Charlotte!

“They’ve made our couch really famous because now everybody wants to sleep on it,” Lindy Hornaday said with a laugh. “I talked to [historian] Buz [McKim] from the Hall of Fame. He was coming to my house to get some stuff of Ron’s and I was teasing him about the couch. He said, ‘You know we really ought to start thinking about that couch.'”

Simply put, Ron and Lindy Hornaday love people.

They must. That’s the only explanation for how they not only endured by enjoying life in a 969-square-foot home in California with two kids, three guests, three dogs, two birds, a goat, a pig, a rabbit and numerous cats, all with one bathroom, before they relocated to North Carolina to better pursue Ron’s racing career in the 1990’s. When they migrated to Charlotte’s suburbs in Mooresville and bought a comparatively spacious 2,400-square-foot spread on a cove on Lake Norman, Ron Hornaday Jr. could more easily indulge the habit of inviting folks out to visit, lounge or bunk down. And he most certainly did.

“Hornaday’s place was always a place where everybody felt like they had a connection to him,” Harvick said.

Now living across the street, with more space and a bigger dock, there’s even more room for the Hornadays to connect. “Chasing money,” Hornaday said, for the first time in his career and without solid plans to race in the NASCAR Truck series this season, he busies himself with other racing ventures. His wife has opened her own business, and although they still take in guests, they miss the din of the heyday of Camp Hornaday.

Though Lindy Hornaday has occasionally scolded her husband, Ron said, for his “revolving door” of a liberal guest policy, those former “campers” of their commune credit her equally with fostering a family environment that keeps old friends returning for years, grilling out and telling stories after races, pulling up their boats at the dock on weekends just to see who will stop by.

“I love Ron, but Lindy’s the glue, the real champion of that house,” Johnson said.

“I have to explain my wife,” Ron Hornaday said. “She’s unique. We’ve been married 35 years. Her father and my father raced together and she knows what it takes. She was the one, ’79, ’80, ’81, back in the ’90s when she was doing fingernails to pay for my firesuits and stuff like that. I said. ‘Oh, man, my firesuit is ripped. We’ll have to go another year like that,’ and she would come up with the money somehow saving it. So she knows racing.”

That said, sometimes there are surprises.

Ron and Lindy were swimming in their pool one afternoon when a 1974 motor home rumbled to a stop in front of their home, whereupon two fans he had met and innocently invited out “if you’re ever in Mooresville” decided to take him up on the offer well after the fact. They stayed two days, ate with the Hornadays, swam in the pool. They’re counted among a large roster of friends now. That Ron has long harbored an aversion to his friends renting apartments before they could afford to buy houses has precipitated long stays by many, such as Harvick, who admittedly “mooched off Hornaday for a year or two.”

“The Hornaday household was always a place where you had something going on,” Harvick said. “We drank a lot of beer, for sure, but we always had a good time. But Hornaday and Lindy were always open to helping people.”

With Ron and Lindy ensconced in the master bedroom and children Ronnie and Candice in their own rooms, an upstairs game room became the makeshift hostel.

“We were always in that room,” Lindy said. “There was a pool table and a bar and a big TV and that’s just where everybody congregated. And then they would fall asleep in the couch and that’s kind of what the whole thing was. It wasn’t where they slept, it’s where they slept sometimes when they fell asleep.”

Space varied from the night of the week and the schedule of the boarders, and a pullout mattress was a prized acquisition. Johnson coveted the massive bean bag stored under the pool table. And then there was the couch, resplendent in its sectional-and-love-seat glory. Somewhere there’s a picture of Harvick “balled up” on it, Hornaday said, but not even a fervent search before the NASCAR awards banquet could produce it.

“I don’t think I was ever in a bed,” Johnson recalled. “I would definitely crash on that couch. That was kind of a cool spot to be, in the game room with all the trophies. There were people all over the place. It was awesome. It was like camp.”

Johnson came to camp as a 21-year-old off-road racer from El Cajon, California, seeking his next career arc, “working any angle I could,” he said, before Hendrick Motorsports agreed to fund a dirt Late Model car for him. He’d previously met Hornaday at a Chevrolet autograph session in Detroit, was invited — of course — to bunk at the lake if he decided to relocate to NASCAR’s hub, and bought a one-way ticket for Charlotte once the Hendrick offer came.

Harvick, also 21, was a firebrand and kindred spirit from Bakersfield who had positioned himself to join Spears Racing in the truck series when Hornaday signed with the now-defunct Dale Earnhardt Inc.

“Kevin and I used to race at Mesa Marin [California] and we used to call him “The Kid”, and he’s always been younger than me, so I still call him “The Kid,” Hornaday said. “It just worked out we were racing against each other and he took the Spears ride when I went to Earnhardt. He was coming to live back here and get a little more acclimated with the racing part, so I told him to just stay at the house when he came out.”

Johnson stayed with the Hornadays for roughly four months in 1997 before they helped him find his first house. Having won the first of four Truck championships in 1996 — his most recent in 2009 with Harvick’s now-defunct team — Hornaday wielded the cachet to make connections for both of the young Californians. Hornaday’s endorsement had weight as Richard Childress moved to sign Harvick to his Nationwide program.

“While I was there, I didn’t see Kevin a ton,” Johnson recalled. “He was busy traveling and racing and so was I. I would see his luggage on one side of the room and mine would be on the other and there would be other people bunked up and crashed out all around the house from all parts of the country.”

They all remember it as a blissful time even if they don’t remember the other being around much. Johnson, the “boy next door,” and Harvick, “more like Ron, kind of gruff and a prankster, trickster kind of guy,” were young and ambitious, but exceedingly polite and years away from the encumbrances of the fame their success would bring.

There were weekends of tubing on the lake, steaks with dill seasoning, salt, butter, onion and mushrooms, served for five or 15, depending on the ebb of the work week, and the bass at the end of the dock that no one could ever land. Rent was refused but chores were required. There was the water balloon fight that escalated into Harvick chasing Lindy through the house with a full-blast garden hose and ended with him taking a plunger to the crotch — “He had to win everything, but I think I won that one,” she said with a laugh — and then there were the fish tacos. So many fish tacos.

“One night a week everyone had to be in charge of cooking dinner and Jimmie’s was on Tuesdays and he always did the same thing,” Lindy said. “He always cooked his famous fish tacos. And I don’t like fish at all. Oh, I hated Tuesdays.”

Lindy still calls them “her boys” and coos as much about how they have grown into doting fathers as about them being champions of NASCAR’s top series.

Harvick began his first full Nationwide season with Richard Childress Racing in 2000 and won the championship a year later, all as he was thrust into the arduous position as replacement for icon Dale Earnhardt after he was killed in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Johnson was taken in as a protégé by four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports, began his career at NASCAR’s highest level full time in 2002 and won six championships — five consecutively from 2006 to 2010 — and 70 races through 13 full seasons.

The bond of common experience Johnson and Harvick shared through their communal beginnings under the Hornadays’ roof eroded under the glare of competition early in their Cup careers. Where once they vied for space on an air mattress in the game room, they now contested slivers of asphalt and trophies at 180 mph, and wrangled all the emotion and ego that entailed. Their relationship inevitably suffered, Johnson said, as “that whole environment got us crossed up for a handful of years.” Oddly, Harvick’s infamous quip in 2010 regarding Johnson’s combination of talent and maddening good fortune marked a period of reconciliation.

“When he made the remark about the golden horseshoe in my ass, it was actually mending back together. I would say, like, ’05, ’06 there was definitely … we both … there was some energy there that was off,” Johnson said. “He spun me out, it must have been the [2005] Gatorade Duels and we wrecked. He wrecked real bad. I don’t think I had any damage. We sat down an hour after that race was over and kind of hashed out what was under each of our skin and got back on track again, but it’s through the competitiveness of motorsports and kind of growing up together and seeing we’re both now at these big teams and the competitive side definitely strained our relationship. There were some rough years without a doubt.”

There was no more definitive proof that those years were over than entering the final race weekend of the 2014 season, when Johnson presented himself in Harvick’s hauler after each practice, texted him and crew chief Rodney Childers, offering any assistance he could provide in helping him claim his first Cup title. Granted, Hendrick Motorsports’ affiliation with Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing provided incentive also, but the overture was personal and Harvick took it as such.

And so did the Hornaday’s.

“It was cool to see them helping each other out,” Ron Hornaday said.

Cooler than that.

“I remember we were watching that last race at Homestead. Ron, tears were coming down his eyes when Kevin won that championship. It was such a proud moment,” Lindy said. “Every time one of those boys wins, the first thing Ron does is texts them and tells them ‘Good job.’ Every single time. He makes sure he tells them he is proud of them.

“Kevin won that championship and I said, ‘Why are you crying?’ and he says, ‘I’m just so proud of him.’ It’s just emotional. We kind of sit back like proud parents.”

And like parents, they wish the kids could get home a little more, particularly for the so-called Stay Up All Night after races at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but they understand that success and families of their own demand Harvick’s and Johnson’s time. And like parents, Ron and Lindy are confident that they left their most famous tenants with more than a safe haven far from their home. Hornaday still detects the lessons of humility. But he also can see that Harvick and Johnson adhere to the mantra of the sign he mounted over his bar.

“Live Every Day Like It’s Saturday,” Hornaday said. “Because you never know when it’s going to end.”(nascar on espn)

Even though Ron Hornaday was a fiercely competitive race car driver, both he and his wife have fostered a true sense of family among many of the NASCAR race car drivers over the past 20 plus years. Additionally, even more than Hornaday’s multiple Truck Series championships, he and his wife may be best remembered among his fellow drivers as running “Camp Hornaday”, and being a driving force in several drivers’ early formative years of struggling to make it in Charlotte and the NASCAR world!

TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!

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